Why our political discussions don’t go anywhere

I normally delete comments that merely sling insults and don’t contain any substantive contribution/critique. But I had to leave this comment by Dave Koch from Prescott up on my post poking fun at the poor writing skills of of AZ Representative Paul Gosar (or his staff). I left the comment up partly because it (amusingly) has even more errors than Gosar’s letter and partly because it demonstrates a kind of thought pattern that I find really interesting and problematic.

Dave Koch is really pissed off. That’s alright. I’m pissed off too! I bet Dave Koch and I are probably pissed off for some of the same reasons – like unemployment, and the prospect that the future is going to be worse than the past. I’d say that’s a good starting point for working together to fix a problem.

But I know how a discussion with Dave Koch would go. He would focus on how I am (or how he thinks I am) different from him (right now he assumes I’m some sort of welfare queen), and claim that all of my arguments and positions are invalid because of my age, my sexuality, my religion (or lack thereof), etc.

Dave Koch doesn’t think that his comment on my Gosar post is silly and misses the point. He thinks that my imaginary position on the welfare rolls means that nothing I say is relevant. That’s how a whole heck of a lot of Americans do politics, and that’s a huge problem. Because the only way you can have a real conversation in that sort of climate is if you make sure that everyone has the same background, the same belief system, the same goals, the same lives. A country that enforced that kind of homogeneity would a really scary and miserable place to live.



  1. Ted Hart says:

    There was a great This American Life episode that I couldn’t track down, or maybe just a bit Ira Glass, but I can’t seem to find it.  I’ll try and paraphrase as I remember it:  we can never win anyone over in an argument because we often have different axioms from which we build our arguments.  I think this is often true in political arguments.  For a moment lets discount all arguments that are obviously self-serving and hypocritical (probably most).  Now imagine yourself in a room discussing something like welfare or healthcare with a tea party member.  Imagine this person is polite and civil.  You would probably never agree on much because you construct your arguments from different axioms.  For instance you both may have “valid” arguments (I use the word in its formal logic sense) but you’ll disagree on the “soundness” of your arguments.  I’ll probably never agree with a republican about health care policy because we begin our arguments from different axioms, I believe healthcare is a fundamental thing to provide people, they do not.  The disagreement over axioms then becomes much more difficult.  This is why arguing in science is so much more appealing.  In science you could make the following argument:
    1.  Birds have wings
    2. All creatures with wings can fly
    3. All birds can fly.

    Well you can disprove my argument by going out and finding creatures with wings that can’t fly, proving that my second statement is false.  My argument is still valid, but not sound.  But how can you offer such proof for things like “All people should have health care”  “All people should be able to marry whoever they want”  “War is stupid”?  That’s why I don’t even bother to discuss it anymore.  I’ll now slip out of more reasoned thinking and into crazy liberal thinking.  America is pretty much screwed anyway.  Given our massive debt, constant investment in war, declining investment in education, science and technology infrastructure its hard to imagine how we can remain relevant in 100 years. I’m inclined to think history will remember us as a wasteful and ignorant nation that plunged the world into a climate disaster.   Meanwhile the people in power have no concern for the long term, only their own short term selfish interests. My solution is to just make sure my kids know Chinese.

    • Mike says:

      Ted, I see where you are coming from, but I disagree with a large part of it in practice.

      Sometimes — perhaps most of the times with the Tea Partiers and Libertarians — they are just demonstrably wrong to a great level of accuracy.

      Don’t believe in climate change? Wrong.

      Don’t believe in evolution? Wrong.

      Don’t believe that access to contraception tends to reduce abortion? Wrong.

      The facts or at least extremely, extremely well-supported theories and/or studies all too often just prove them wrong outright, with no matter of opinion at all. They can certainly have their own opinions, but don’t get to have their own set of facts, as much as they wish they could.

      I do see where you are coming from about the usually sub rosa assumptions that construct the conscious structure of our ratiocination, but all too often we give people passes who are juts flat out wrong.

      I don’t think telling them they are wrong actually helps much, but the alternative, that they have “different ways of knowing” as I’ve heard it put before, leads to even more problems (mainly, hugely losing any debate).

      The left is always concerned with being polite and seeing the 3,001 exceptions that give the arguments of their ideological enemies marginal credence in 0.0001% of circumstances.

      It’s time for us to jettison that nonsense, as it doesn’t’ help us.

    • sarcozona says:

      I think that having different political axioms isn’t necessarily a problem for making substantial progress on big problems! For example, someone might not believe that humans are responsible for climate change, or that it’s even happening, but we can agree that renewable energy is a good thing since fossil fuels are a finite resource. Yes, I think this person is off their rocker – and they think I’m off mine. But we could still work together and actually do something useful. But that doesn’t happen because when someone like Dave Koch sees that I do think climate change is human caused, they cannot take _anything_ I say seriously.

      Now, I do think it’s important to still fight those scientific (climate change is happening!) and philosophical battles (women have the right to abortion!), but we should try to make progress on the things we can agree on just a little bit in parallel.

      I admit that there are many instances where this simply doesn’t work. Namely, when one or both sides aren’t being honest about goals and motivations. For example, some on the left might reach out to the pro-lifers and say, ‘you don’t think abortion should happen at all, and we don’t think women should be pushed into having abortions through circumstance, so let’s work together on good sex ed and contraceptive availability.’ But that doesn’t work because the ultimate goal of the hardcore pro-lifers isn’t to reduce abortion – it’s about control of women’s sexualities and bodies.

What do you think?

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